The White Stripes / The Mojo Interview
by Andrew Male
In the otherwise deserted back-lot of Nashville's Blackbird Studio, Jack White III - black t-shirt, black strides, pale white skin - is pointing out a new detail on his new car. "I was in two minds about buying it," he says. "And then I saw this..." On the rear fender of his white 1960 Ford Thunderbird is a run of nine vertical chrome stripes, divided into three groups of three. A good sign, the number three being - along with the colours red, white and black, and the image of Jack and Meg as bro and sis - an efficacious idée fixe during 10 years of The White Stripes' astonishing blues duo experiment. It's served them well, as both protective shell and magic charm. The band, who've sold over 12 million albums worldwide, recently signed a multi-million dollar Warners deal and landed a guest appearance on the Simpsons. "Which was great," confides Jack. "But they should have made our skin white, not yellow."
Blackbird, a plush state-of-the-art Nashville super-studio, designed by country music husband-and-wife John and Martina McBride and host to the likes of Shelby Lynne and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, is where the Stripes recorded their sixth album, Icky Thump. A world away from the 8-track shacks of the Stripes' past, it is, eerily, furnished entirely in red, white and black...
Meg White is already there, sitting in the tricolour lounge, dressed in white; smoking, sphingine, imperturbable. Asked how their relationship's changed over the past 10 years she replies, softly, "I only have to punch him once a week now." Meg now lives in Los Angeles. "It's quieter than people think..."
Jack moved from Detroit to Nashville in 2006, following his marriage to model Karen Elson [see Mojo 141], the birth of their first child, Scarlett Theresa, and a final falling out with the Detroit rock fraternity, of which December 2003's punch up with Von Bondie Jason Stollsteimer was but the tip of the iceberg, as we'll later discover. All that pre-Elson commotion resulted in 2005's exploratory Get Behind Me Satan, and if White still talks about music with a boyish enthusiasm, Icky Thump (title derived from the Lancashire exclamation of disbelief, employed by Elson in moments of exasperation) is still an album beset by torments. "A lot of times it's just too easy to write how you feel," he says. "I'm having a great day? Well what about Joe Blow here, who's not? Let's talk about him. That's more interesting than my great day."
He's currently finishing the second Raconteurs album, playing Elvis in John C. Reilly's Walk The Line parody, Walk Hard, and contributing to a new Bob Dylan project - "He's taking unfinished Hank Williams songs and giving them to people to complete." Then there's the little matter of a tour across all 50 US states, every Canadian province and a new Eskimo territory!
[From here on, Questions in italics, Jack's reply in normal.]
Blackbird's quite a fancy place. Was there any temptation to lose yourself in a modern studio?
Well, we'd always been scared to do that, for one because I couldn't afford it and also because we thought it would turn the sound plastic. But The Raconteurs are recording here right now, about two weeks into our album, and because we worked out any kinks with the White Stripes record, the first Raconteurs song instantly sounded good. The first thing on tape was "Woah!" But the way I produce, I don't really want to touch the board. I'd rather the engineer do that. I'm always pulling the leash on myself to keep from becoming interested in gear because I know pretty soon I'll be out in a garage with a blowtorch trying to build a microphone and I won't be writing songs.
Two tracks on the new album, Prickly Thorn and St Andrew, apparently address your Scottish heritage...
My family's Scottish, partly, and Polish. On the last tour I celebrated my 30th birthday in Poland, a hundred years after my grandmother came to America. There were crowds singing Happy Birthday to me in Polish which is what we do in my family. Half of my family were Polish Catholics. They're good people. My brothers are barrel-chested, ass-kicking lumberjack types. I'm on the lighter side of that. They're men's men. Family is the most important thing. I told my sisters recently there's a tiny part of my brain that, despite all logic, thinks one day we're all going to get back and live in the same house, all 10 of us...that this is all just temporary, even though I know those days are gone. The word 'home', in my lyrics, unconsciously comes up all the time. Working on GBMS, I think I hit it to the absolute breaking point with the idea of home, the real home.I'd come to the conclusion that it had gone and what was my supposed, constructed new home as also shattering.
That album's difficult to listen to now...
Satan was a bad time. There's a track on the new album, I'm Slowly Turning Into You, we had cooking during Satan and I remember there being a positive slant to that song a first, a couple of lines that said "But I'm proud to be you", but I guess I just wasn't seeing the bright side very much at all during Satan.
You seem to be saying on that song that you're in love with someone but you don't know how to live with them...
Well, there's this character that everyone has in their head when they're having breakfast alone, this person you might represent to someone across the room looking at you. When someone comes into your life you have to decide, which 'you' are you gonna give them? A lot of times in bad relationships you give them the fake version and that's why it doesn't end up working out.
The marimba on Satan...
(Quickly interrupting) The marimba's all gone. I knocked it over in Japan on the last show. I don't have a Pavlovian response to that sound but, yeah, those songs...The Nurse is about somebody I was in love with, had been in love with for over a decade, but the way you explore all these characters compels you to know yourself better.
When you were young you were torn between the priesthood and the marines...
Yeah. Some teacher once told me that in older times, the first son would always take on the father's trade, the second one would join the military and the third one would be expected to become a priest. I became an upholsterer, making music at the same time. The guy I was apprenticing for, Brian Muldoon, said "You're gonna take this music somewhere." I thought "Well, that's a polite thing to say but that's fucking ridiculous."
What did music mean to you before you famously discovered a Stooges album in a dumpster behind your house?
I was already a drummer and into all kinds of drumming, Gene Krupa, Deep Purple, Stewart Copeland, those were my heroes. Finding the Stooges record came when I was recording stuff on my 4-track, playing guitar.
Given how key the Stooges were to your musical awakening, how come you didn't end up producing their recent album?
That went back and forth. Years ago I got a call from Iggy and I said, "Yeah, let's do it!" I had an idea: let's all live in a house together, get the recording equipment in, no one's allowd to leave, stay there until it's done, and Iggy loved it. But the next day he called and said, "I don't know, man..." Years went by and people around the Stooges said "You should do that album." I said, "I don't think they want me to." Out in Australia when we were on tour together I said, "Look, whatever you want me to do, I'll do it. Play bass, bring you guys coffee, I don't care. Whatever you guys want." I mean, I'm in debt to The Stooges for life and I'm never going to say no. So I guess you'd have to ask them...
It's 10 years of the White Stripes in July. What would the Jack White of 10 years ago have made of Jack today?
I couldn't even venture to guess. I know when Italy Records wanted to put out our first 45 [Let's Shake Hands] I told them, "We can't afford that!" [Label owner Dave Buick] said, "No, I'll pay for it." I just didn't get it. Your environment tells you what you can and can't do. For example, when you're on tour in LA, everybody who comes to the merch table wants a deal, wants to get stuff for free. That's a town where everybody's got a friend whose dad is a producer. Nobody wants to pay full price for anything. I was from an environment which was totally the opposite. So get to work.
What prompted the move to Nashville?
I wanted to live down south. I always had this feeling, even when I was younger, watching [Loretta Lynn bio-pic] Coal Miner's Daughter. It just felt like home. A couple of years ago I went around the South, preparing for [his role in Antony Minghella's] Cold Mountain, but also thinking, "Where should I be living - Savannah, Georgia? Muscle Shoals, Alabama? Oxford, Mississippi?" Nothing seemed right until Nashville. Jeff Evans, from the band '68 Comeback, who lived in Memphis, told me Memphis is so much like Detroit because Detroit is a Southern city [Meg explains this is partly due to the migration of Southern workers to Detroit car factories in the first half of the 20th century]. Maybe I've always been in a Southern city.
Did you stay in Detroit too long?
Oh yeah! Big time! I was trying to do the right thing. The cowardly thing would have been to move to a nice house in the suburbs. But you don't get points for that. I don't know whether we were looking for points or just trying not to do the wrong thing. I didn't want to play the victim, so for too long I was trying to hold a stiff upper lip and beating myself up, thinking, "What am I doing wrong?" You'd have one person writing a book about us without our permission, another person selling photos, another person suing you and then another person trying to put you in jail. It didn't feel very good to be in the White Stripes walking around town. My cousin Ben [Blackwell] was telling me when Iggy opened up for the Rolling Stones in Detroit he was bottled off stage. In his hometown! I've never got up the gumption to ask Iggy what that was like but it must be heartbreaking. There's an attitude in Detroit that is very intricate and interesting. There's not too many people there we can have a conversation with any more.
Was part of it down to them trying to rile you and see if you hit out, because, being honest, if you do get riled, you do hit out...
Well, there is that, but then you've got to wonder what kind of mind wants to provoke?
Has being a father changed your nature?
It changes everything. I'm a very protective person and there's a big side of me that, when situations come up, things will happen and...I mean, weren't we at a show once when there was a guy being an asshole to everybody? [An altercation at north London's Dirty Water Club in 2002 where Jack elected to 'sort out' a drunken lothario]. Sometimes there's a voice inside of me that says, "This element needs to be removed!" But when you see life through a child's eyes, you take on a whole different protective nature.
But Icky Thump isn't the sound of the new, happier Jack White, is it? You Don't Know What Love Is (You Just Do As You're Told) is a harsh song, a mean thing to say...
(laughter) I wrote that song when we were touring with Dylan. I don't usually write on tour but I left the show to go write that song. Well, the next day I was talking to [Dylan] and I said, "I wrote this song last night called You Don't Know What Love Is (You Just Do As You're Told)" and he goes "(Mimes Dylan's sharp intake of breath as if to say 'That's a bit strong')". Then he says, "But what key is it in, man?"
So the guy who wrote Idiot Wind hears your song title and thinks, "Too strong for me"? Well done! How do you behave around Dylan? You can't conduct yourself as a fan...
Well, something I've battled with my whole life is how to present myself to other people. It seems that when I'm 'having a blast', enjoying myself socially, saying whatever comes in my head, I will very quickly be told to stop. Someone in the room will have a bad expression on their face or will find what I said a little bit inappropriate and that will quelch my good times. At times I will even leave, go home, because I just can't take it anymore. In my thirties...I guess it's a depressing statement but I don't take the chances I used to, I don't allow myself to be whoever that person is inside me. I'm choosing my words more carefully because of who's in the room. There'll be times on tour where, by the end, someone will have to be let go. And I'll say, "Wow man, I never knew any of that was going on," and they'll say, "Well, it's different when you walk in the room." So I'm not getting anybody for real either. Marlon Brando said you never meet anybody ever again, once you become 'famous'. If you really said what you really wanted to say to these people, all those questions you've been dying to ask all your life, forget it man! What do you think is going to happen?
What did you think of Dylan doing that ad for Victoria's Secret?
Well, he never looked cooler than he did in that commercial. He looks bad-ass. That's the only opinion I have on that.
How about you doing the Coke advert?
Well, every answer I give seems to come back as more punishment, so if you're going to write anything, write that first. Coke didn't like it. They originally wanted to use We're Gonna Be Friends. "Well, no" I thought, "but let me see what this advert is," and it was beautiful. We wrote this song in 10 minutes. They wanted a song like I'd Like To Teach The World To Sing and I though, "Great, a task!" The day I saw their visual treatment was also the day of the Blue Orchid video shoot, the day I met my wife and I fell in love with her instantly. I brought her into my room and played her that song. The only moment of displeasure was the fact that Coke wasn't into it.
Are the White Stripes just one of your projects now or are they still your home band?
I don't think I ever really had a home band. Right now, I'm equally compelled to think about and create for the Raconteurs. We wanted that first album to be off the top of our heads, written and recorded immediately. We've been recording the second album for the last couple of weeks and, man, these songs are nothing like that! They're monsters. The whole album's a lot more intricate than anything I've done before.
How has the Jack and Meg relationship changed over the years?
Not much. Meg's a pretty stable person.
Well, how have people changed towards you?
Your close friends?
They're all gone! (Laughter) That's probably the answer really. (Pause) For a while there I was driving myself mad trying to figure out what it is I'm doing wrong because it really feels like I'm doing the right thing. The ironic thing is you look back and it's almost like you're supposed to be more selfish in this game. You see all the rogues through rock 'n' roll history who've been a bunch of completely self-centred bastards and have gotten nothing but rewarded for it. Unselfish? You get punished for it. It's very strange. I'm not trying to say I'm a saint. I make lots of mistakes, I've messed up friendships, I'm not the easiest person to be friends with, but it's funny to think you might have to do the opposite to get what you want.
You've had rules about what you won't do as The White Stripes, like not playing Clear Channel-owned venues? The bigger it gets, is it harder to stick by those rules?
I think we always stick to our guns, but for different reasons. When we were first saying no to the majors it wasn't because it was the punk thing to do but because we were concerned with our artistic freedom. Were we just going to get chewed up, spat out and sent right back to the minor leagues? We didn't care about the corporate side of things. For God's sake, everything's a corporation. Every product I've consumed today...The White Stripes are a corporation, even if it's not on paper...But, you know, we just signed with Warner Brothers. That wouldn't have been a good move on our second album. Enough time has gone by and we've gained in experience. What do you want from a record label? I want them to sell my record. That's it.
You've said in the past that you've been reluctant to make the White Stripes political but that line about white Americans being "immigrants too" on Icky Thump's title track seems pretty 'political'.
Almost always the song is in control and I don't tell it what to do. But, if you're a songwriter, that department of politics is just a department of fame and celebrity, another self-righteous sub-genre of fake philanthropy. Oh, they donated a million dollars? Well, take the tax write-off part out of it...now how many people are doing it? I don't want to amplify my own person by other people's misfortunes. Plus, it takes somebody who knows a lot more about it than me to talk abut it. I can say how much I don't like George Bush but I don't watch the news enough to back that up. The news depresses me so I turn it off. I've got too much work to do. Recently an interviewer was saying, "You seem to be giving out so many disclaimers, you're so worried about what other people think". I said, "You asked me what I think about cell phones. If I tell you I don't own a cell phone, your readers who do own cell phones are going to read it and say, 'I own a cell phone, does that make me a jerk?' You know what, Jack White's a jerk! How dare he say that?" Suddenly I'm this poster-boy Luddite for gas lamps! You've got to wonder where I should be honest!
You've talked in the past of how you've found it hard to enjoy success. Has that got easier?
Yeah, I've found it easier to enjoy the peripheral aspects of it. I see things in a different light now because of the absence of the hipster, underground, independent culture that used to surround us. In the past you'd alter your presentation because you know how it's going to be take and that's bad. After the Coca-Cola thing I knew what people were going to say but should I care? No, in fact, it was the moment to say, "Fuck you, people! Here's a great big Christmas present for you. Bye!" (Laughs)
You're now a famous guy with the super-model wife. Is it hard to avoid the modern world of celebrity?
Well, you can go down every red carpet you can find or you can do what feels right for you. Luckily, neither of us have any desire for that kind of attention. I guess we look for attention in different ways.
Do you have more freedom now?
I'm in a happy, positive place right now, alive and well and unencumbered, but that don't have nothing to do with recording. The White Stripes have as much freedom now as they day we started. I don't think it's ever changed. The White Stripes graph for artistic freedom is a solid straight line [but] with artistic freedom comes the freedom to choose what struggle you want. People think if you had more opportunities, things would be better - "If I just had $10, 000 to pay the bills life would be a blast." The thing is, the more opportunity you're given it's your job to become more responsible. The freedom you're given is also a responsibility.
How would you like to be remembered?
Probably just as being part of the blues canon, 100 years since the blues started. I'd like to think that we were the first male/female two-piece arrack [?] on it in the electric world.
Why is that so important?
Because that's the truth. The blues is so often throw into this bin of novelty and cliché but it's one of the most important things that's ever occurred on planet earth. It's such a realisation of everybody's feelings, desperations and problems broken down to the most simple notion, one person against the world. There are a lot of different ways to deal with the world, you can fight, you can lay down and be walked over...I've tried every one and I'm going to keep trying to figure it out.